How advertising works, or doesn’t

Advertising uses repetition to increase consumers’ preference for brands. Initially, novel brands gain in popularity due to repetition, which increases the likelihood that consumers later buy the brands. Particularly for novel brands, excessive exposure and repetition is necessary to establish the brand name in the first place. Remember your initial irritation upon encountering the names YAHOO, GOOGLE and WIKIPEDIA for the first time; now they are imprinted in your brain.

Basic psychological research has already shown that the psychological mechanism behind this repetition effect is the easiness with which we perceive information. Repeatedly perceived information is easier to process for the brain, which saves capacity, and thus feels positive.

Concerning brand names, recent research by Sascha Topolinski and Fritz Strack has shown that this feeling of easiness and ensuing repetition effects actually stem from the mouth. Each time we encounter a person’s or product name, the lips and the tongue automatically simulate the pronunciation of that name. This happens covertly, that is, without our awareness and without actual mouth movements. During inner speech, the brain attempts to utter the novel name. When names are presented repeatedly, this articulation simulation is trained and thus runs more easily for repeated compared to novel names. Crucially, if this inner speech is disturbed, for instance during chewing gum or whispering another word, the articulation of words cannot be trained and the repetition effect vanishes. People who are chewing something are immune to word repetition, they do not prefer familiar words over novel ones.

The present study applied this to the real-world scenario of advertising in movie theaters. There, people usually consume popcorn and other snacks during watching commercials, which disturbs the inner articulation of brand names.

There is more here, hat tip to Michael Rosenwald.  Here is related coverage from Drake Bennett.


I used to wonder at the habit, which seemed stupid to me, of branding something with a name where pronunciations differed. A car called the Ford Falcon was an example: if an advert used a pronunciation of "Falcon" different from mine, it would put me off the brand. This seemed to happen particularly with cars, so it's perhaps no more than a special case of the general ineptitude of Ford/GM/Chrysler.

Pry-Us versus Pree-Us is the first example that comes to mind... Is there a current American brand-name you were thinking of?

Nope, but your suggestion is spot on. Why do they do it? Can we now expect Toyota to assume GM's levels of all-round competence?

> Can we now expect Toyota to assume GM’s levels of all-round competence?

I think that's been clear for at least ten years. They make cars for people who hate cars. :)

I assume, based on the weight of numbers, that they designed the Prius brand around America and not England. Perhaps they just didn't anticipate that the English would read those letters and pronounce it differently? Is that obviously the correct way to pronounce it in England? Is there some similar word that could have been used as a guide? Does the rest of the UK say Pry-Us too? Do Toyota advertisements say Pry-Us over there?

Did Jeremy Clarkson just F it up the first time he said it and it's never been fixed since?

"The present study applied this to the real-world scenario of advertising in movie theaters. There, people usually consume popcorn and other snacks during watching commercials, which disturbs the inner articulation of brand names."

They don't do this when watching TV?

People still watch TV commercials?

One of the main lessons of a speed-reading course was to stop doing this covert articulation. The course called it "sub-vocalization". The idea was that articulating what you read limited your reading speed to your speaking speed, about three hundred words a minute. The method was to read text while repeating "one, two" out loud, thus preventing the covert articulation.

I could do this easily. I already didn't sub-vocalize, and my reading speed was already over a thousand words a minute. But others, the majority, could not read while talking. On the other hand, I knew plenty of words I couldn't pronounce because I'd only read them and never heard them spoken, not even by myself.

So the effect is probably not universal; fast readers probably don't get any more anti-advertisement benefit from popcorn.

The ep-i-tome of hy-per-bole.


Interesting, I didn't know it. You would have my +1 if there was such a feature here.

One of the curious things I learned while reading up on spaced repetition ( ) was that the advertising industry has sponsored a remarkable number of studies examining the effect for use in advertising, to the point where they all could be meta-analyzed: "A Meta‐analysis of the Spacing Effect in Verbal Learning: Implications for Research on Advertising Repetition and Consumer Memory"

One thing that I often wonder is why isn't the legality of advertising debated more? To me using this kind of "brain hacks" to imprint an image of some product or brand into our minds seems immoral. Advertising for children is often criticized (and in some countries heavily regulated) on the basis that their minds are so easy manipulate. I think the same argument applies equally well to advertising aimed at adults. At least in public places, where people don't have a choice whether they are subjected to advertising or not, ads should not be allowed.

No one is more keenly aware of the value of manipulation via advertising than the very people who have the power to make it illegal.

You do not vote for human beings as lawmakers - you vote for heavily tested, pre-packaged ads about human beings. The value and actual competence of the human plays no part.

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Every sensory input is a "brain hack," and regulating all sensory input seems rather heavy-handed. Although I find most TV advertising rather dull, I do want to know about new products. Should your hypothetical right not to be subjected to advertising trump my right to see it, not to mention the ability of companies and individuals to do business? I personally don't think so. While these effects are real, the size of the effect is pretty small compared to conscious decisions.

This is probably not the only way that advertising works. And is it a mental hack, or is it merely a necessary activity to overcome innate resistance to the unfamiliar? You might argue it is a mental patch, not a hack.

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